The Writer



When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is almost certainly wrong.

ON THE AFTERNOON OF DECEMBER 21, 1846, hundreds of men crowded into the operating theater at London’s University College Hospital, where the city’s most renowned surgeon was preparing to enthrall them with a mid-thigh amputation. As the people filed in, they were entirely unaware that they were about to witness one of the most pivotal moments in the history of medicine.

The theater was filled to the rafters with medical students and curious spectators, many of whom had dragged in with them the dirt and grime of everyday life in Victorian London. The surgeon John Flint South remarked that the rush and scuffle to get a place in an operating theater was not unlike that for a seat in the pit or gallery of a playhouse. People were packed like herrings in a basket, with those in the back rows constantly jostling for a better view, shouting out “Heads, heads” whenever their line of sight was blocked. At times, the floor of a theater like this one could be so crowded that the surgeon couldn’t operate until it had been partially cleared. Even though it was December, the atmosphere inside the theater was stifling, verging on unbearable. The crush of bodies made the place feel plaguey hot.

The audience was made up of an eclectic group of men, some of whom were neither medical professionals nor students. The first two rows of an operating theater were typically occupied by “hospital dressers,” a term that referred to those who accompanied surgeons on their rounds, carrying boxes of supplies needed to dress wounds. Behind the dressers stood the pupils, who restlessly pushed and murmured to one another in the back rows, as well as honored guests and other members of the public.

Medical voyeurism was nothing new. It arose in the dimly lit anatomical amphitheaters of the Renaissance, where, in front of transfixed spectators, the bodies of executed criminals were dissected as an additional punishment for their crimes. Ticketed spectators watched anatomists slice into the distended bellies of decomposing corpses, parts gushing forth not only human blood but also fetid pus. The lilting but incongruous notes of a flute sometimes accompanied the macabre demonstration. Public dissections were theatrical performances, a form of entertainment as popular as cockfighting or bearbaiting. Not everyone had the stomach for it, though. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said of the experience, “What a terrible sight an anatomy theatre is! Stinking corpses, livid running flesh, blood, repellent intestines, horrible skeletons, pestilential vapors! Believe me, this is not the place where [I] will go looking for amusement.”

The operating theater at

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